Today, the world awakes with a sigh. A ‘bigly’ mistake has been chewed and spat out of the White House, but not before it wreaked enormous damage on a country that has always prided itself as “God’s own.”
It is a bit strange to wake up in a post-Trump world. Perhaps as strange as it was that there was even a President Trump in the first place. These are anomalies, just like COVID-19, no one saw coming, especially not after America voted her first black president in Barack Obama, a man who brought great dignity to the office of the president of the United States.
When Obama was still president, I remember exchanging messages with a US diplomat who once served in Abuja but whose duty had taken to a European country. It so happened that Barack Obama visited this certain European country and as an embassy staff, this veteran diplomat put in a lot of effort to organise Mr Obama’s visit. It would be her first time encountering the man. When it was all over and I asked her how the visit went, she said, “I am just so proud he is my president.”
It is hard to imagine the ‘bigly’ mistake that was President Trump eliciting such pride in his compatriots. What he has inspired and seemed quite competent at inspiring was hate, rage and bringing out the worst from his fellow Americans.
Perhaps not since the end of racial segregation has America been sorely lacking in the unity she prides herself on, which had been forced into the name of the country. Trump and Trumpism eviscerated the United in the States of America and left a country deeply divided, full of loathing for each other and now facing the enormous challenge of healing herself.
Healing is perhaps the right word to use because like a virus, what brought Trump to power is a disease, an ideological infection that in political speak is called right-wing extremism.
I keep referring to Trump in his own word as a “bigly” mistake. I was being deliberately mischievous. The reality is that he was not so much a mistake as a projection of the America most of us don’t know. The fact that he scored nearly 63 million votes in 2016 and improved on those numbers in 2020 when he got 74 million votes, which equates to 46, nearly 47 per cent of the total votes cast, is a clear indication that the man, vile, foul-mouthed and loathsome as he is, has a solid support base. That he was able to mobilise a horde—and a horde they were, dressed in the faux animal skins and barbarian clothing of the people who were first gifted that name—to storm the symbol of American democracy, the Capitol, is a reflection of this other America. The America of the small towns. The America not in the lens of the liberal media that has shaped the perception of that country for the rest of the world. The America I stumbled into a short while back.
It was in 2018 if I recall correctly. I was travelling on a train to a small town in Upstate New York and this elderly gentleman with a grey beard took interest in me. We started talking. He asked where I was travelling to and I told him. For some reason, he seemed to think I was an immigrant, that I was going to set up home in that small town upstate. I did not correct that impression. He learned that I had only arrived the US two days before and marvelled that my English was good, “almost like an American.” He knew this place I was travelling to, he had worked there some 30 years before and was a frequent visitor still. He told me stories and some of the history of this place. He talked about the politics and the rise of right-wing extremism, or more like the surfacing of it. I liked the man and I believed he liked me too.
When he got to his stop, he shook my hands firmly and held on.
“Be careful out there,” he said, looking straight into my eyes. “You know what I mean? Be careful out there.”
Welcome to Trump’s America!
Fortunately, I had no nasty experience in this small town. I was in a civilised and diverse company and I had a memorable stay.
But that America was on edge, fraught with tensions that drew fault lines across the face of the country like Kanuri scarification. Through these cracks, sentiments bubbled to the surface. They manifested in messages of hate like the “Kill Trump!!!” scribbled on a New York metro seat that I photographed for documentation purposes. Or the increasing brazenness of the rednecks and the relentless wave of the confederate flag and hate towards immigrants and people of colour, like the time a poet friend and his family were harassed by a redneck, yelling at them to return to their country.
Trump is so different from Obama but the two are joined at the hips. Obama was the liberals claiming America for themselves; Trump was the response to this. That lesson in Physics that every action attracts an equal and opposite reaction applies here. It was the possibility of a black man in the White House that made it possible for a redneck and misogynist to claim the Oval Office. When the liberals stepped forward with finesse, the right-wing responded with the crudeness that has defined them over the years. That crudeness was personified by Mr Trump.
Whatever Trump is and was as a president is not something that President Joe Biden could wipe away with a wave of a magical presidential wand. The virus of hate and ideas that Trump and his supporters represented cannot be healed by Biden even if he were a skilled shaman. He is going to try to heal the divide, to restore America’s pride in the comity of nations and to be president of “all Americans.” What he will succeed in doing is papering over the cracks, because the people who Trump represents will do exactly as Trump did. They would rather die on their feet, defiant to the end, than to concede the errors of their ways or the defeat of their ideas by time.
For the rest of the world, Biden is an American president. He is not going to perform miracles for others. Trump might be uncouth with his “America first” declaration but the reality is that for every American president, America will always be first, as it should be with other countries. The US is governed by strong institutions, without which Joe Biden wouldn’t have been sworn-in as president and Trump, the dictator, would still have been sitting tight, like his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, who recently contested elections against Bobi Wine, a man who was only four years old when Museveni first became president in 1986.
Sad for Uganda, without strong institutions, they will suffer years of Museveni. For America, poor naked, America stripped of her clothing in the global market square by her own president, the journey begins to collect her dignity, piece by piece. It will be a long walk home, for America, no doubt.